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SXSW ’10 | “Mars” Director Geoff Marslett Touts His Interplanetary Romance

SXSW '10 | "Mars" Director Geoff Marslett Touts His Interplanetary Romance

In Geoff Marslett’s ambitious animated “Mars,” he explores our undying quest for the unknown. “A new space race is born between NASA and the ESA when Charlie Brownsville, Hank Morrison, and Dr. Casey Cook compete against an artificially intelligent robot to find out what’s up there on the red planet. ‘Mars’ follows these three astronauts on the first manned mission to our galactic neighbor. On the way they face adventure, self doubts, obnoxious reporters, and the boredom of extended space travel. This romantic comedy is told in the playful style of a graphic novel – using an animation process that director Geoff Marslett developed specifically for ‘Mars.'” [Synopsis provided by SXSW]

Editor’s Note: This is one interview in a series profiling directors whose films are screening in the Narrative Competition, Documentary Competition and Emerging Visions sections at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.

Emerging Visions
Director: Geoff Marslett
Screenwriter: Geoff Marslett
Producers: Anish Savjani, Robert Howell, Geoff Marslett, & Javier Bonafont
Music: Howe Gelb
Cinematographer: Jason Eitelbach
Editor: David Fabelo & Geoff Marslett
83 minutes

Marslett introduces himself and his…band…

Hi, I’m Geoff Marslett. I make movies, teach at the University of Texas, and play in a karate rock band with prosthetic arms and legs.

On becoming a filmmaker…

I guess I came to filmmaking in a circuitous manner…as most independent filmmakers probably do. I wanted to be a filmmaker because I really liked a lot of different things: painting, photography, music, words, etc. A finished film, even when it isn’t exactly what I had imagined, is always exciting for me.

At first, I decided not to be a filmmaker. Way back in the mid nineties I thought I wanted to be a filmmaker, then got distracted by a degree in mathematics and philosophy. A year or so after I finished that I came back to film…but I am glad I took the detour. The films I grew up watching were faraway westerns, sci-fi adventures, crazy musicals, and stylized art house stuff. I loved the exotic worlds and crazy characters they created. So when I started making films I wrote about talking monkeys, space ships with swimming pools, sarcastic robots, and solar powered calculators. For my first feature, MARS, I chose a romantic adventure to the red planet. I never thought I was following the old adage about writing what you know, until a friend watched the rough cut. She told me the movie was really about me. Suddenly I looked back at the shorts I’d done and realized that my seemingly unrelated degree was sneaking back into my work. The question now is whether or not some folks want to hear me tell stories about that stuff.

Marslett on coming to the idea and aesthetics for “Mars”…

I wanted to tell a romantic story, but I didn’t want it to be the standard “how do you find the perfect guy/girl story”. I wanted it approachable, but still a tiny bit out of reach. I wanted everything from the hairstyles to the locations to the visuals on the screen to follow this theme. So I adapted the screenplay based from a ten page short that I wrote around 2003 when the US rovers landed on Mars. The short explored why we explore. At the time I really wanted to make it, but couldn’t figure out how I could practically do it. I teamed up with my old friend Robert Howell and we set out to make a small experimental film.

“Mars” filmmaker Geoff Marslett. [Image by Melanie West]

We wanted something that looked realistic, but not quite. Visually falling somewhere half way between “Sin City” and “Waking Life”…or half way between a graphic novel and a hand colored photograph. Basically we shot the actors in a green screen studio here in Austin. They were there, and had costumes…but no props or backgrounds–that stuff was all green boxes and walls. The footage of the actors themselves was rotoscoped using a hybrid of line drawing and image processing. We did the bulk of the color work on them by processing the actual colors from the live footage using a program that Tray Duncan and I developed based on my previous program. Then we added the major line details by hand before finishing the final shading work using another automated process. These characters were composited with environments and props that were a combination of hand drawn, 3D animation, and roto-ed over 3D work (all of those made from scratch).

Marslett on the challenges of making an animated film on a budget…

I think convincing people that we could make an animated film on our budget was really a hard sell. Independent animated films usually cost a lot more than we spent. So people were worried we’d get in over our heads and not finish. I think this made raising money pretty difficult. So it meant a few of us had to work lots of extra hours to keep the production going for so long. It is hard to keep your eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel for two tears of post.

Marslett on what’s to like about “Mars”…

“Mars” is a romantic comedy about astronauts on their way to the red planet. I wanted the journey to feel approachable and everyday, but also just barely out of reach. I think this is how romance feels a lot of the time…maybe all of the time. I didn’t want to make an edgy dark indie film. I wanted to say something about love, life, and adventure. They are all around us. They aren’t so much horrifying and dangerous as they are just too far up on the top shelf to reach. We should notice them…stand on our tip toes and and try for them. In my film it takes going to another planet to see it…but it doesn’t have to. I think SXSW attracts the kind of audience that will relate to this semi-optimistic film. I guess I also hope that the audience enjoys the unique visuals of the film, and maybe laughs some too. SXSWesters do seem to like films that fall a little out of the ordinary.

Marslett on influences…

Jim Jarmousch’s “Dead Man” is one of my favorite films. I love the way it meanders. I also love the way the music works its way into the sound scape organically. I wanted my Marsnauts to drift towards the new world without really knowing the way…like William Blake does in Jarmousch’s film. To create this drifting feel I wanted the music to be a reoccurring character, again similar to “Dead Man”. I listened to a lot of Giant Sand/Howe Gelb records while I was writing “Mars.” So when Howe agreed to write the soundtrack I was thrilled. Now that it’s done I couldn’t imagine the film without his music. I am sure “2001” and “Star Wars” had some effects on my portrayals of space, and I try to think about David Byrne’s “True Stories” during the production of every film I make. I think “True Stories” is an under-rated masterpiece. “True Stories” shows the subtle humor and specialness of the simplest little things. I can only hope I created a few similar moments in “Mars.”

Down the road for Marslett…

I am finishing up an animated music video for Giant Sand right now. I also have begun a little bit of shooting on a live action romantic tragedy about a gimmick rock band. I’d really like that to develop into a TV series…but we’ll see. I also have two feature projects that I am hoping to find some funding for. One is a western road trip/treasure hunt movie set in 1873 and the other–well, I really should talk more with the co-write of the other project before I say anything about it. In any case those are the three vying for my attention right now.

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